Podcast #95: Energy and Carbon Consensus with Brendan Jordan

brendan-picThis week’s podcast is a conversation with Brendan Jordan, the vice-president of the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based energy and climate think tank. I sat down with Brendan last week at his office to discuss the political landscape of climate change policy, both locally and nationally. We discussed how to think about climate and energy policy in light of our increasingly polarized landscape, and what kinds of solutions might offer some consensus for people trying to reduce CO2 emissions. The discussion focused in on a few technological and political approaches, as well as some of Jordan’s predictions about what the next few years of climate policy might look like, both in Minnesota and in Washington. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

[Rough partial transcript follows.]

On the Great Plains Institute:

Our mission is a renewable and low carbon energy system by mid-century. What’s unique about GPI is we focus on convening disparate interests facilitating processes that bring those groups towards consensus. And finally implementation, if we are able to metaphorically lock that group of people in a room and bring them to agreement, it doesn’t just stop there. …

We work at the appropriate scale, where we think we can have an influence. We operate at the Federal level, and we have a few bills in congress right now. We operate at the regional level, for example with our regional system operator that operates the electric grid. We do state level work…

On working with conservatives on energy policy:

We’ve always tried to develop a strategy that doesn’t rely on who’s in power politically. We’ve always tried to develop a strategy that relies on trying to transform the political situation by working with the different interest groups. And that means talking about energy issues in a way that doesn’t always lead with climate, so that we can get traction in parts of the country where people might not be sold on climate, or that might not be their primary concern.

We do only work on things that offer the climate benefit as well, because that’s why we’re involved. But that all of the times that means … what that opens up when you broaden the range of climate solutions, what you’re looking at is generally that there we are working on, things that are clearly laid out in all the international assessment reports as being absolutely essential parts of addressing climate change. But those are not always things that are embraced by the environmental left. Things like carbon capture and storage, that tend to have more support in fossil fuel producing states, and red states. Things like biomass and bioenergy, things like nuclear power. All those things I listed are part of every achievable scenario of limiting warming to 2º celsius, which is what the Paris Agreement is built around.

On Minnesota’s rural-urban divide:

Look at the map. You’ve got the blue states and the red states, but in reality Minnesota is a good example of a typical state being often blue, but not by a lot… We have the same dynamics nationally, with that urban-rural split being alive and well in Minnesota. We launched a project called the “bioeconomy coalition” in 2012, and to sell it based on the climate merit, advanced biofuels are part of a lot of strategies for de-carbonizing the transportation sector, especially in aviation.

There are a few other reasons for the environmental community to engage: the climate rationale, lower carbon fuels, the need for safer products to displace things like thallite plasticizers that are ubiquitous in plastics. There are a lot of chemicals of concern that are being phased out in a lot of markets. It turns out that we have a cluster of companies in Minnesota that are working on alternatives to these things. But from a rural Minnesota perspective, the rationale is all about economic development. We’ve got a forest products industry that has experienced some decline, and this is an opportunity to create new markets.

On the iron range politics and economic development:

The range has two primary industries and its mining and forest products. And we’ve had a lot of conversations with them about how a new bioproducts and advanced biofuels industry could be value-added, and could offer economic benefit for that part of the sate. We’ve honed our talking points being around economic impact. If we create a new state incentive to help these industries grow, yes it costs money, but you get more return on investment in terms of economic impact long-term. That was actually the policy we worked towards, which ended up being an alliance between Southern Minnesota agricultural Republicans and Iron Range Democrats representing the forest products industry. We worked together and pushed through a production-based incentive for advanced biofuels, bio-based chemicals, and bioenergy. And that policy ended up passing with strong bipartisan support in 2015. And for people in rural Minnesota, it’s about making the state a really competitive place to attract projects.

On partisanship, regulation, and market solutions to climate change:

In our system of government, the really top-down dictatorial environmental regime won’t survive anyway. There’s lots of ways for institutions to get organized and overturn a regulation if they don’t like it. And to give an example, there’s 25 fossil-energy-producing states in the US. If they feel like climate regulation is gonna shut them down, there’s lot of ways for them to prevent a climate bill from getting through the US Senate. You can’t get to 60 votes without having 25 of the states supporting it. That’s not really a Democratic or Republican issue because Democratic or Republican senators from fossil-producing producing states don’t vote very differently on climate and energy issues.

On climate messaging:

We hope to try to transform the politics, and that means reframing the issues a bit. To caricature the “environmental community perspective… and we work very closely with a lot of awesome groups in the environmental community… But I’ll characterize it: wind is fine; solar is fine; energy efficiency is fine; nuclear, we don’t like nuclear; and coal with carbon capture we don’t like that; and natural gas with carbon capture, we don’t’ like that…

The problem is that if you limit your list of climate solutions, A) it doesn’t have credibility. The math doesn’t add up any more for actually achieving a 2 degree or 1.5 degree celsius target by 2100. There are very few plans that actually leave all those things off the table and actually get there. But the other thing is that if you leave all those things off the table, you’ve ruined the ability to have broader political support, and have a coalition of senators that can pass a climate bill. So it’s a political necessity as well.

On renewable energy and technology:

As recently as 2001, we had almost zero wind. It was less than 1% of generation. Now in Minnesota, it’s like 25% of our electricity mix in the state, and continuing to increase. And so we can look at… You can tell the same story with solar photo-voltaic rooftop panels. And we’re seeing this unfold right now with lithium-ion batteries. We’re seeing a really steep cost decline as manufacturing capacity scales up, driven by the automotive industry, it’s dropping at as scale of 14% per year. We’re going to have electric transit buses, electric school buses. If you go to Home Depot, every tool has a lithium-ion battery in it. That’s just going to continue to improve. We can do the same thing for something like carbon capture and storage.

On talking across the partisan divide:

Well, I think that one of the lessons is to engage people in a discussion at an earlier stage. If you come into a discussion with new organizations, new people, and your perspective is that I’ve got the solution, and I’ve got to sell it to them, you’re not going to get real far. If you work with people at an earlier stage, and say, “what are our shared objectives?” If you work with people at an earlier stage and come up with shared solutions together, you’re a lot more likely to find common ground. With carbon capture, it’s been a long process of getting coal companies, oil companies, labor organizations, environmental groups like the Clean Air Task Force, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, to sit down together and work through… let’s work together on this idea. No we don’t really want to do that… There’s sort of a process of elimination of people being willing to set aside their intended solutions and try and find the areas of overlap where people are willing to work together.

On post-Election Washington:

It’s sort of like everything changed and nothing changed. It’s sort of a big change in Washington, but we’re the same country with the same people. It’ll be really interesting to see how things play out, and how different organizations position themselves. There’s general agreement that the Clean Power Plan is likely to be rolled back in some way, at least that has been the commitment on the campaign trail. At the same time, utilities all over the county have already made lots of investments around anticipating that policy. It’s sort of hard to imagine rolling all those things back. Once you’ve made investments in new plants and shut down certain things, it’s hard to imagine going back. Lots of industry groups expect long term that there’s going to be some sort of price on carbon, or limits on carbon of some kind. I think they’re likely to keep working that into their projections long term. There’s some city level work that’s going to continue. There are a lot of questions, but our strategy is not shockingly different: it’s to continue to engage people and continue to make sure we have a strategy that’s workable in blue states and red states.

 

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